Barna research released a study finding that one in three practicing Christians are no longer attending church due to Covid-19. I have spoken with numerous pastors who express the same concern over this phenomenon. We seem to have missed the real death toll of Covid-19 in the church, we were blindsided. The virus has given some people the opportunity to finally escape from the church. To be sure, there may be legitimate health concerns of some that have kept people away and this article is not about legitimate Covid-19 issues. For others, however, as worship has resumed, they are simply gone—nowhere to be found.
The truth is, looking at the ministry of Jesus, the church has always had many people who loosely follow Jesus, who are not committed to his kingdom. Jesus recognized this phenomenon as he constantly challenged people’s motivations for following. “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus called out every one of these people out essentially saying: “Are you sure about that? Do you know what it will cost you?” In John 6, Jesus had around 5,000 artificial followers, and by the time he was done driving up his offense, on purpose, most of his own disciples waked away from him. At times, Jesus is in the business of shrinking the church, especially as the church becomes overrun with a people who loosely follow him for all the wrong reasons.
We have a host of people in the church today who follow Jesus the same way. They show up for their duties, to serve when their name is in the bulletin, to ensure that they are seen, but when it comes to worship, they are not present in heart or body. They were loosely connected to the church for family, for friends, for social engagement, for basic morality, but they have attended with little interest to worship the Lord or be filled with the message that saves. Now that Covid-19 has come, it has become an opportunity to escape the church as accountability and their presence and is no long traceable.
As pastors, we lament such a phenomenon, it breaks our hearts. We have prayed down the apathy, we have lamented the indifference, we have longed for commitment and delight in the Lord’s worship and his Word from those who have always had such a privilege. We have struggled with it in our own hearts. How are we to process what is happening? We have prayed with the Heidelberg Catechism, “increase and add to your church”. We have wrestled with what “revival” is, especially in an American environment. How do we minister in a “burned over district” in post-Christian America?
Maybe the Lord is answering our prayer right now, in a surprising way. The Spirit has always been committed to preserve true worshippers in the church who worship in spirit and truth. In any given church, this core is present. These saints love Christ, his gospel, his Word, his people, and worship is the most important thing they do in life. This commitment from those who truly follow Christ is what the world needs to see right now—more than ever! People of whom a virus cannot shake their “faith”, people who are committed even to suffer persecution and death for the name of Christ, people who understand the importance of gathering and receiving the means of grace. These sheep have always been there.
At times, however, the chaff needs to be blown away for that witness to shine. At times, God clears the slate, exposes the lies, to show forth true believers in the kingdom. I have been shocked as to how many new people are walking through our church doors at this moment. I’m not sure if this a common experience of others, but it’s been a surprising development. Whatever the Lord decides to accomplish in these difficult times, I know this: our own “house”, the church, is in desperate need to be put back in order, first, before we help the “Ninevites.”
“Lord wake up your church”, we pray, “bring us back to life, let our witness be strong in these troubled times.” Covid-19 might just be that surprising answer as judgment always begins in the house of God, first. The chaff must be blown away, false doctrine exposed, with people who take seriously their faith and who no longer come to be entertained. At moments of great exposure like this, the righteous, who are truly committed to Christ, begin to shine again before the world, offering a message of hope that is actually heard.
The Lord told the church in Sardis, “Wake up, strengthen what remains and is about to die…” This is where we are at the moment. We need to wisdom to recognize our peculiar moment of opportunity. People need to witness sincere followers of Christ who are committed to the gospel of peace. May the Lord strengthen and increase his church, and may we not be of those who are blown away like the chaff.